What to Know
New York and New Jersey lawmakers have joined Amtrak in imploring the Trump administration to green-light the new Hudson River train tunnel
One advocate says he believes President Trump is actively throttling the project so he can use the tunnel as a political bargaining chip
The USDOT blamed project delays not on political reasons, but on the inability of NY and NJ to find "workable local financing"
From the perch of an Acela train engineer's chair, Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz points out the crumbling concrete plaguing the Hudson River train tunnel. It's hard to see the damage as the locomotive whizzes by, but still photography shows the deterioration.
During Superstorm Sandy, portions of the tunnel’s bench walls were submerged by corrosive salt water. Ever since, chunks of concrete have been crackling off – sometimes landing on the tracks themselves.
"That’s why we call this the most urgent project in the country," Schulz said, referring to a $13 billion plan to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. "This is an area where 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product is created."
Because it is impossible to know how long the 108-year-old tunnel walls can last before a catastrophic failure, New York and New Jersey lawmakers have joined Amtrak, imploring the Trump administration to greenlight the new tunnel.
But for months, the project has been stalled.
Now the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group in favor of the tunnel project, is suing the U.S. Department of Transportation, seeking reasons for the delay.
NRDC officials say they were stonewalled last year after filing a records request for emails in which the tunnel project is discussed. The lawsuit demands the USDOT comply with the Freedom of Information Act and produce those emails. The suit also cites insider information suggesting Trump administration officials may have used the codename "mushroom" to refer to the project, possibly to "stymie Freedom of Information requests."
Scott Slesinger, the NRDC’s senior advisor for federal affairs, says he believes Trump is actively throttling the project so he can use the tunnel as a political bargaining chip.
"There are some reports that because it’s so important to the senators of New York and New Jersey, particularly the leader of the Democrats, Sen. Schumer, that the [resident wants to trade it for a wall," said Slesinger.
In response to questions from the I-Team, Dave Longo, a spokesman for the USDOT sent an email insisting the Federal Transportation Administration, a USDOT sub-agency, "is unaware of the term 'mushroom' to refer to this or any other transit project." The statement made no mention of whether USDOT personnel in other sub-agencies may or may not have used the alleged code name.
The USDOT statement also blamed project delays not on political reasons, but on the inability of New York and New Jersey to find "workable local financing" for the tunnel.
"It is false to say that DOT is blocking the Hudson Tunnels project, when in fact the project as it stands is actually ineligible to proceed," the statement read.
In 2017, the governors of New York and New Jersey committed to finance $5.5 billion toward the cost of the new tunnel. But the USDOT is still evaluating that financing plan.
The email from Longo said the Environmental Impact Statement is also still under evaluation and "was expected to require significant additional work."
That response was particularly befuddling to the NRDC because, on most other projects, the nonprofit says President Trump looks to fast-track environmental reviews.
"He wants every project to be approved in two years, no matter how complicated. But in this instance it seems they are putting the brakes on the environmental review," Slesinger said. "We found it ironic."